While the thirty-three miners (actually, one of them was Bolivian) were being hoisted up to the surface from the mine chamber, where they had been trapped for 69 days, I had my computer on and connected with the live feed from Chile through ABC News. I was doing other things, but I could glance over and watch, as each one came out of the 21-inch-wide capsule that transported them.
Human skill accomplished their liberation, just as the medical and other skills of health professionals had preserved their physical and psychological well-being during the weeks the exit hole was being drilled and the equipment was being constructed. Techno-logic explains all the physical aspects of this accomplishment.
It would not be human, nor would the miners and their rescuers be honored, were we to stop here and not consider the imponderable dimensions of this historical event. In one news cycle it played itself out, and today’s internet-press postings speak of other things, both important and frivolous.
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” said the poet T.S. Eliot in two of his works (Murder in the Cathedral and Four Quartets). We cannot bear the reality of those 17 days after the mine collapse, during which no one above knew they were all alive, and they did not know whether or how they would be looked for by potential rescuers. The men prayed briefly every day; perhaps the more devout among them prayed constantly in the quiet of their souls.
I do not have to speak, nor do I wish to speak, of “God’s hand” guiding miners and rescuers toward this successful conclusion. But I have to see in them and in their rescue a sort of “eucatastrophy” — a word that J.R.R. Tolkien used to characterize the ending of his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, a person of faith, chose not to mention God in the book, but let the narrative (which he insisted was not an allegory of anything natural or supernatural) show its ultimate meaning through the ending: the catastrophic collapse of evil power through the weaker force of the good.
It is not necessary to name an evil entity (like Sauron, or the reign of Mordor, or the magic of the ring of power) in the causality of the miners’ entrapment. Enormous lacks were there, sins of omission if you wish, like lack of security in the mines, or the very fact of basing so much of the economy of Chile and the world upon copper and gold, the metals that the men down there were sent to extract. The men themselves were weak, some physically and some psychologically (just ordinary “Hobbits” one might call them). Their ultimate fate was sealed — literally — in stone, and Murphy’s law prevailed for the most part. But the evil ending of the story was upended and catastrophically reversed through the archetypal and perinatal symbolism of the narrow passage and the emergence into light: rebirth and resurrection.
Wearied news media have tried to forget this imponderable sign-value of the rescue, because the persons and market forces that direct the media cannot bear the reality that the event patently projects upon the conscience of anyone who will gaze at its light. The miners will keep their sunglasses on for a few more days; the techno-logic of our culture will keep its gaze turned away, as usual. A minority of persons will utter the G-word and explain thereby the event, and I will bear with their God-talk, which as a person of faith I sometimes use myself.
But I want to bear this “very much reality” and will try to do so through silent contemplation of the simple fact of thirty-three men who suffered no harm from their entrapment and did no harm to one another while awaiting liberation from it.